A few weeks ago while my blizzard-frenzied hometown of Baltimore was busy emptying grocery shelves of bread and toilet paper, I took off for Paris—at the invitation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). There’s nothing I love more than a great big snow storm, but sacrifices must be made.
The occasion was OECD’s kickoff event for a new study to look at how the world prepares its teachers. Just as the U.S. had recently begun paying attention to the critical role teacher preparation plays in teacher quality, so too has the international community.
One of the first assignments I had when I arrived at National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) 13 years ago was to participate in an OECD study on teacher quality. Exactly as the teacher quality debate has played out in the U.S.—virtually ignoring teacher prep until recently—that study only identified the selection but not the preparation of teachers as a factor of interest.
My assigned role was to speak about U.S. teacher preparation. It did occur to me that if the OECD had consulted with American higher education institutions or the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education about who would have been best to provide such a perspective, my name would not have been on their list. And I will concede that I did not paint a pretty picture, but it was a fair one backed up by the evidence.
In fact, no country was there to boast, not even the largely-Asian Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) powerhouses. Finland’s delegate, for example, dismissed the notion that only the top 10 percent of their college grads are admitted into teaching, a myth he ascribed to the poorly understood fact that candidates are able to apply multiple times and most, he asserted, eventually make it in. Representatives from Hungary and Turkey expressed considerable dissatisfaction with what they felt were their countries’ excessive focus on teachers’ content knowledge—and didn’t seem to notice me turning green with envy. Other nations, particularly Australia and Chile, expressed problems eerily similar to ours.
I was also interested to hear that teacher-bashing, however it might be defined, appears to be a multi-national problem. Only South Korea continues to report the high status of teaching as a chosen profession while the rest of us bemoaned the profession’s ability to attract the best and brightest.
The most universal complaint? Without question, the deaf ear of higher ed to the practical needs of novice teachers.
In any case, the purpose of such a meeting is to fully air the range of problems and organize them into manageable buckets, not come up with the solutions. Actually, I’m not sure if a set of solutions should ever be an expectation at any stage. The real challenge for any international effort is the discipline and persistence required to descend from the clouds, delivering comparative data at a level that is practical and concrete for the countries involved.
As I cannot recall more than a handful of such studies over the last 20 years, that must be easier said than done. Most depend on platitudes to fill their pages—not to mention a dizzying array of incomprehensible flow charts (why does anyone think that converting a narrative into a heavy mixture of text boxes and arrows somehow makes complex systems more comprehensible?).
Solutions reside within each nation, perhaps spurred by education ministries or groups such as ours (which appear to be increasingly prevalent, I was heartened to see). We all benefit enormously from better international data—not unlike the way that PISA results have helped the broader education movement engage in better advocacy.
Many times over the years NCTQ has reached out to education ministries and academics in other countries with what we believe to be basic questions—such as “How many schools of education do you have?” “What are the courses teacher candidates take?” “What does it take to get in?” or “What level of math proficiency does an elementary need to have?”—generally without success.
These are questions which are grounded in the nuts and bolts of practice and which, if answered, might explain a lot. That’s how we learn and improve—not with generalizations or by making assumptions about what works in other countries, but with facts and data to back them up.